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WHO IS BARBARA WELLER? Reporting from the Good Planet Hot Tub, Michelle Cottle ignored Barbara Weller: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, APRIL 1, 2005

EVEN BITTNER THE SECOND TIME AROUND: For us, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill was even better the second time around. We went the first time on Monday afternoon, sitting in a deserted theater. But last night, we were part of a good-sized audience—and we were impressed to see how often they laughed at Mark Bittner, the subject of this one-of-a-kind documentary. In truth, attendees didn’t laugh at Bittner; clearly, they laughed in surprise and delight at Bittner’s thorough lack of disguise. Indeed, in many ways, this film explores the human capacity to find delight in the external world. In the pull-quote in this morning’s Post, Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir praises Wild Parrots thus: “One of the most beautiful and endearing nature films you’ve ever seen...I loved this movie without reservation.” But the nature explored here is human nature—and the human search chronicled here goes deep. For many of you, this film will provide a welcome alternative to the parade of pious-but-angry crackpots you saw on cable “news” networks all week.

The pull-quote in today’s Times ad refers to Wild Parrots’ “surprise ending.” To our own surprise, we found the ending more moving the second time around, when we knew it was coming. (Quite literally, it occurs in the film’s last fifteen seconds.) We strongly suggest that you catch it—although you may appreciate it more the second time around.

The Post’s Ann Hornaday rarely misses. “Quite simply, a beautiful film, in both form and content,” she’s quoted saying in this morning’s Post ad. And here’s what makes Wild Parrots superlative: Whatever you think the film must be about, almost surely, it’s about something more.

WHO IS BARBARA WELLER: Everyone knew the Official New Line: The press corps ridicules people of faith. On last Sunday’s Reliable Sources, here was the opening Q-and-A between Howard Kurtz and Michelle Cottle:

KURTZ (3/27/05): Michelle Cottle, has the press ridiculed, or maybe I should say marginalized, religious people who believed the Terri Schiavo must be kept alive as a matter of Christian morality?

COTTLE: Well, it's not that they get out there and make fun of them. It's just you come with a ready-made kind of visual here. You have people on the streets praying. They're—you have very dramatic and even melodramatic protests and things like this. These people are very easy to kind of just poke fun at without even saying anything. You just kind of show these people. And the majority of Americans who don't get out there and do this kind of, you know, really dramatic displays feel a little bit uncomfortable on that level.

And yes, that’s what the spin-soaked pundit said; according to Cottle, the press corps has been “poking fun” at the Schiavo protestors by televising the things they are doing! Cottle’s unparalleled way with a New Approved Script continued when the question was broadened:
KURTZ: Let's broaden this to other religious-related issues: teaching of evolution in Kansas schools, a lot of coverage there, whether it should be required, whether creationism should be included; the Ten Commandments display in Alabama and elsewhere; even gay marriage in San Francisco. Isn't there some built-in media bias by the East Coast journalists toward those who have a different view of these matters?

COTTLE: I think there is. I mean, it's not that they—again, it's not that they say unpleasant things. But they do behave as though the people who believe these things are on the fringe, when actually the vast majority of the American public describes itself as Christian. You know, a huge percentage, somewhere between a third and a half, actually say that they believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. And another huge chunk would be comfortable with evolution being taught in the schools. And this—this is not what you find in the New York media.

But what exactly was Cottle saying? Should “New York media” hire people “who would be comfortable with evolution being taught in the schools?” That would be a tough case to make—but Cottle made it sound fairly simple. And again, she assured the nation’s rubes that the press corps was mocking those people of faith. Journalists “behave as though” creationists are on the fringe, she said, giving no examples.

But is it true? Do mainstream journalists ridicule people who want to put saddles on dinosaurs? (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/30/05.) One wonders what planet Cottle inhabits if she still thinks that this is the norm. Indeed, throughout the Terri Schiavo mess, a range of nasty, on-the-fringe Christians have been given extremely wide berth in the media—endlessly allowed to make wild statements without the slightest hint of a challenge. For example, consider the very-pious Father Frank Pavone, interviewed last evening on Hardball. Pavone was described as a spiritual adviser to the parents of Terri Schiavo. Guest host David Gregory asked the pious man if the Schiavo-Schindler feuding could finally end:

GREGORY (3/31/05): Father, there has been so much vitriol, so much acrimony between the Schiavo and Schindler families—is it now time for this to end, is there any healing that’s possible?
Drawing on his vast store of wisdom, the pious padre peddled fake, pleasing words:
PAVONE (continuing directly): There’s two things going on here at the same time. First, you have the animus between the two families which of course is long-standing. And of course, in those matters there is always, always a need to plead for reconciliation. I have reached out to Michael [Schiavo] publicly and asked for that process to begin. So has the family.
Of course! There is “always, always” a need for reconciliation, the pious padre pleasingly said. “I have reached out to Michael publicly and asked for that process to begin.”

But is there a bigger fake on the planet today than the most-pious Pavone? Indeed, here’s the way the pious padre had “reached out to Michael” just a few hours earlier. We quote from William Yardley’s report in this morning’s New York Times:

YARDLEY (4/1/05): Ms. Schiavo's parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, included at least one anti-abortion leader, the Rev. Frank A. Pavone, the director of Priests for Life, on the list of those allowed to see their daughter. When Father Pavone arrived outside the hospice on Wednesday night, an assistant gave out a contact number, telling reporters Father Pavone would be ''one of the hottest interviews over the next day or two.''

Indeed, Father Pavone appeared on several television programs Wednesday night and Thursday, at one point calling Michael Schiavo, who fought to have his wife's feeding tube removed, Mr. Schiavo's lawyer and a local judge ''murderers.''

''This is not only a death with all the sadness that brings, this is a killing,'' said Father Pavone, who visited Ms. Schiavo minutes before she died.

As David Gregory surely knew, the pious Pavone had “reached out to Michael” by publicly calling him a “murderer!” But then, in the hours after Terri Schiavo died, Pavone’s outreach seemed to know knew no limit. We quote from Manuel Roig-Franzia’s report in today’s Washington Post:
ROIG-FRANZIA (4/1/05): The last half-hour of Schiavo's life, much like the last seven years, turned into a family brawl. Her brother, Bobby Schindler, who lobbied Congress and conservative Christian groups for years to save her, argued with police when he was asked to leave her room so that hospice officials could assess her condition. Pavone said Schindler complained because he was told he was being banned from the hospice as Schiavo neared death.

Michael Schiavo's "heartless cruelty continued until this very last moment," Pavone said.

So Pavone “reached out” by calling Schiavo a “murderer”—and by attacking his “heartless cruelty!” But so what? When Pavone made his pious presentation on Hardball, Gregory politely stared into air. He never challenged his guest’s odd statement—never cited the actual things Pavone (the “hot interview”) had actually said. Does the modern mainstream journalist actually “ridicule” men like Pavone? Over and over, mainstream newsmen go out of their way to give such pious fakers wide berth. From what planet does Cottle report if she has failed to observe this common conduct?

Do mainstream scribes mock people of faith? Consider the pious Barbara Weller for another example. Over the course of the past several weeks, Weller had been telling the world that Terri Schiavo was full of life—as long as the cameras weren’t rolling. Indeed, she had already led one compassionate observer to think that Terri Schiavo must be semi-conscious (links below). But so what? Last Saturday, the New York Times’ Rick Lyman reported Weller’s latest declaration:

LYMAN (3/26/05): Still battling despite a series of legal setbacks that went all the way up to the United States Supreme Court, lawyers for the Schindlers filed a motion Friday before Judge George W. Greer of Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, who had ordered the tube's removal, with what they said was ''highly significant new information'' indicating that Ms. Schiavo is more able to communicate than had been previously believed.

Barbara Weller, one of the lawyers, said she had been in the woman's hospice room on the day the tube was removed.

The motion before Judge Greer said that ''at one point during her visit, Mrs. Weller attempted to elicit a direct statement from Mrs. Schiavo regarding her end of life wishes.'' It went on, ''Mrs. Weller told Mrs. Schiavo that this whole matter could end if Mrs. Schiavo could articulate one sentence: 'I want to live.''' The motion continued, saying that Ms. Schiavo ''attempted to verbalize the sentence. She managed to articulate the first two vowel sounds, first articulating 'ahhhhhhh' and then virtually screaming 'waaaaaaaa.' She became very agitated, but could not complete the vocalization attempted.''

The Schindlers argued that their daughter seemed to be trying to say ''I want,'' and that her feeding tube should be reinserted to determine whether she could communicate.

Did Terri Schiavo “attempt to verbalize the sentence” for Weller? Weller had made even more outlandish claims in that earlier declaration, the one which fooled that compassionate observer. But so what? The Times simply described Weller as “a lawyer.” The Times politely refusing to ridicule Weller. Indeed, the paper refused to even mention the good lawyer’s religious point of view.

But just who is this Barbara Weller, simply described by the Times as a lawyer? She’s a lawyer for the Christian Law Association, a point Times readers might have wanted to know as they read her miracle declarations. Long before Weller got involved in the Schiavo case, the Hartford Courant’s David Renner described her conduct elsewhere:

RENNER (7/5/92): They met on Independence Day, but people who are unhappy with the liberal positions of the United Church of Christ said they were not ready to declare their own independence—yet.

They were urged Saturday to stay within the 1.6 million-member denomination to fight to change such policies as the church's stand in favor of abortion rights and its taking affirmative action to place gay and lesbian ministers in church positions.

"It is God against the devil," said Barbara Weller, a founder of the Biblical Witness Fellowship, a conservative caucus within the church.

She said that the devil appears to have the upper hand, thwarting conservative Christians at every level.

In 1992, Weller thought the devil had gained the upper hand because Christian conservatives were being thwarted. Now, she said Terri Schiavo was trying to verbalize pre-canned thoughts—and the New York Times printed it straight.

What exactly should the Times do about a source like Weller? That’s a tough call, but it’s perfectly clear that the paper-of-record went out of its way to avoid “ridiculing” her religious views, which are in fact “out of the mainstream.” For the record, the Washington Post took the same tack with Weller and her miracle declarations. They also reported Weller’s claim straight. To the Post, Weller was a “lawyer,” plain and simple. There was no reference to her religion. Simply put, there was nothing to mock.

For the record, the Post and the Times took a different tack concerning one other expert witness. A Christian neurologist had spoken for Terri. In that case, the Post did report his religion:

ROIG-FRANZIA (3/25/05): The Schindlers had been hoping that Jeb Bush could save their daughter by presenting an affidavit from William P. Cheshire, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., who says Schiavo may be in a "minimally conscious," rather than "vegetative," state, as court-appointed doctors believe.

Cheshire has been a vocal critic of assisted suicide. An article attributed to him on the Web site www.resoration foundation.org advocated Jews converting to Christianity. "Should not we who are in Christ lift the yoke of persecution from the shoulders of the Jewish people and refresh them with the truth of the Lord of the Sabbath?" the article says.

For whatever reason, the Post felt its readers should know that Cheshire was somewhat out of the mainstream when it came to religion. And in this case, the Times agreed. Indeed, on March 24, the Times devoted an entire report to Cheshire’s religion. “William P. Cheshire Jr., the Florida doctor cited by Gov. Jeb Bush yesterday in his announcement that he would intervene again in the case of Terri Schiavo, is a neurologist and bioethicist whose life and work have been guided by his religious beliefs,” the piece began. Eventually, John Schwartz typed this:
SCHWARTZ (3/24/05): Dr. Cheshire entered the field of bioethics relatively late in his career. A profile of him on the Web site of Trinity International University, where he enrolled in the master's program in bioethics in 2000, states that he was ''searching for how he should integrate his faith with his medical career.'' After getting the degree, he became an adjunct professor of bioethics there.

A search of his publication record in the online medical library PubMed yielded articles in medical journals, with a focus on headache pain, in particular trigeminal neuralgia, a painful disorder originating in a cranial nerve called the trigeminal. None of the papers dealt with persistent vegetative states.

The Times seemed to fell that readers should know about Cheshire’s blend of medicine and religion. For whatever reason, neither the Post nor the Times made this judgment concerning Weller. Indeed, neither paper ever mentioned the fact that she came from the Christian Law Association.

Who is Barbara Weller? She thinks the devil has the upper hand—but Times and Post readers wer never told this, even as she made her odd statements. Meanwhile, Michelle Cottle had learned the New Approved Spin—the media ridicule people of faith. Because Cottle lives on the Good Planet Hot Tub, this pleasing claim made perfect sense.

WELLERNESS DOCTRINE: That compassionate man who felt fooled by Weller is Dan Kennedy, of the Boston Phoenix. To trace Dan’s work on this mockery-free case, you know what to do—just start here.

WHO IS THE CHRISTIAN LAW ASSOCIATION: Here are the opening passages of the CLA’s mission statement:

ABOUT CLA

The Christian Law association is a "ministry of legal helps." Its purpose is to provide legal assistance to Bible-believing churches and Christians who are experiencing legal difficulty in practicing their religious faith because of governmental regulation, intrusion, or prohibition of one form or another. CLA will only represent churches:

1) which are clear on the doctrine of Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation, and

2) which are clear on the Bible as the only Divinely-inspired, infallible, and complete Word of God by which all areas of faith and life practice are to be controlled.

As Weller kept declaring her miracle cures, should readers have been told about this background? Different people will judge that one differently. Of course, reporting from the Good Planet Luxury Home, Cottle had no thoughts about such matters. Neither did anyone—anyone at all—on her four-member insider panel. When you report from the Good Planet Press Corps, you all know to say the same thing.